The fee that was supposed to operate a misdemeanor jail in Baton Rouge is officially dead, repealed in the Legislature.
But the problem of thousands of outstanding warrants remains, and without the fines local officials have little or nothing they can do that will be effective in enforcing orders of the courts.
A bill repealed the fee created in recent years to fund the jail, which was to be located in downtown Baton Rouge in the City Court building.
The idea is that the threat of a day or two in jail would be a way to get people to pay up outstanding fines from misdemeanor cases. There are about 160,000 warrants outstanding.
Since 2014, when the Legislature first passed a law to establish the fee, the bench warrant recall fee has generated more than $1.1 million designated specifically for the operation of a misdemeanor jail.
Politics changed the equation: What once was a popular idea backed unanimously by the Legislature, the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council and law enforcement leaders turned into a controversial debate about the incarceration of poor, nonviolent offenders, the majority of whom were black.
It is a distressing bit of racial politics that has roiled the waters of Metro Council meetings over the past year or so, on more issues than just the jail.
Last year, when East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III requested authorization from the council to use the funds for a two-week trial operation of the misdemeanor jail, opponents lined up labeling the effort a “debtors’ prison.” The city had previously done the two-week trials, which were heralded as successes in previous years, since funding wasn’t available to open the jail around the clock.
The Metro Council ultimately decided against authorizing the money, with a majority of the members raising objections to the idea of jailing nonviolent scofflaws, particularly because most of the outstanding warrants are related to traffic violations.
State Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, sponsored House Bill 92 to repeal the fee when it became apparent the money wasn’t being used. Moore opposed the bill, saying all along that he was hoping that officials would reconsider supporting it.
“I’m disappointed the funding is no longer there and that the council decided the way they did to never authorize the spending of the money,” Moore said Monday. “I believe it would have been extremely valuable last summer assisting in reducing the murder rates, and this summer coming, but I understand people’s minds have changed. So I’ve accepted that and moved on.”
The district attorney is absolutely right that allowing misdemeanor offenders to avoid legal consequences feeds into a culture of lawlessness, and prosecuting misdemeanor offenders helps catch people who sometimes move on to become more violent.
But legislators can hardly be blamed when they decide to kill a fine that isn’t going to be properly used. The bill to rescind the fee was passed 98-0 in the House and 36-0 in the Senate.
The fee has been collected by the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, Baker City Court and Baton Rouge City and Family courts.
James’ bill allows those who paid the fee to seek refunds through the end of the year. After that, half the money would be retained by the courts, while the other half would be divided between the District Attorney’s Office and the Public Defenders Office.
Fair enough, but this windfall for those offices does not solve the problem that a misdemeanor jail was intended to correct.